You probably think that trolling brands online is the kind of behaviour reserved for people with far too much time on their hands. But artist and activist Jani Leinonen believes that trolling is a perfectly appropriate way to call brands on their ethics.
Five years ago, Leinonen made headlines by “kidnapping” a statue of fast food mascot Ronald McDonald and releasing a hostage video from faux terror group the ‘Food Liberation Army’, who wanted to challenge the restaurant’s environmental and nutritional practices.
McDonald’s declined to respond to the video, and so the ‘FLA’ released another video, in which the statue was beheaded. Leinonen finds it both ironic and amusing that a fast food brand with a less-than-stellar reputation cited “bad taste” as the primary reason for their refusal to engage.
Speaking at Cannes Lions, Leinonen explains that as an artist, incorporating corporations into his work comes naturally. “These brands are the building blocks of our identities; we’re raised with them,” he says. “They’re a global language.” His #TonyIsBack campaign is an archetypal example. The content portrayed beloved Kellogg’s mascot Tony the Tiger helping out the kids who grew up eating his cereal and ended up as prostitutes and suicide bombers.
It took less than 24 hours for Kellogg’s to shut down the entire thing, except for the videos on YouTube. This isn’t an unusual response; the kneejerk reaction from most brands is to come down hard, and even get litigious. “The greatest thing that can happen as an artist is they sue you,” says Leinonen.
But what if, instead of going into crisis mode and heading straight for the legal department, brands embraced trolling? Ami Hasan, Chairman of Hasan & Partners, believes there is an opportunity to “play along,” to involve your own creative talent and take ownership of the conversation. But far too often they are hindered by a very real, very corporate fear of appearing silly and damaging the brand reputation. “They’re so scared of what people think about them that they take it all too seriously,” says Hasan.
In their joint panel, Hasan and Leinonen drew up five broad rules for dealing with trolls as a brand; embrace it, stay true to your purpose, never hide, be prepared, and most importantly, love all.
You’re already out there, trolling is going to happen whether you like it or not — so steer into the skid. “Once you put yourself out there as a company, people are going to point out the flaws in your ethics, in your products and behaviour,” says Leinonen. “[Brands] are part of society,” adds Hasan, “and they should comply with society.”